How Sons of Vancouver is riding the big boom in small spirits
It will be just two short years in February since Sons of Vancouver opened for business—with a 700-litre still repurposed from a dairy pasteurizer. And, like so many of the distilleries around B.C., owners James Lester and Richard Klaus have barely had time to pause for breath.
Take the past few months of 2016 as an example: Sons ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to upgrade to a proper—and much bigger—still, opened a tasting room, and will release a special barrel-aged edition of their signature No. 82 Amaretto in time for the holidays.
It wasn’t meant to happen this fast.
“We had a plan,” Lester laughs, as we walk around the capacious North Vancouver operation.
“We knew which spirits we wanted to perfect, and we expected slow and steady growth. Then we hit the tipping point for B.C. craft spirits, and the growth line turned into a hockey stick.”
Sons simply couldn’t keep up with demand: they found themselves out of amaretto for a week at a time and, with the holiday season (and the biggest sales period for amaretto) fast approaching, expanding their production capacity was top priority.
“We’re only just getting over that craziness now,” Lester admits.
Friends since their journeyman apprentice days in Fort St. John, Lester and Klaus took their oil patch money and ran—Lester to Australia, Klaus to Colombia—before they reconvened on the North Shore and decided to go into business.
Both were big home brewers, and both had become pretty serious about cocktails while working behind various bars on their travels. Excited to bring something new and different to the back bar, the pair began researching the spirits business, with Lester spending every weekend working at a Seattle distillery to learn the craft.
They defined their goals fast. They wanted to make three spirits that would be the best base possible for three specific cocktails: the Dirty Martini, the Caesar, and the Amaretto Sour. The vodka, spicy vodka and amaretto should, of course, be great in other cocktails, but Lester and Klaus believed that nailing these three would guarantee quality.
Setting the parameters early were key, quickly followed by the realization that they had to make their extracts for the amaretto themselves (experiments with Safeway’s syrups were scratched fast), and that there should be as few ingredients as possible. There was tweaking: the initial vodka recipe was too sweet to balance in cocktails; several varieties of chilies were macerated before Thai dragon chilies won out.
“We knew the flavours we wanted to achieve,” Lester notes. “We just had to get there.”
Seattle, he suggests, is about five years ahead of Vancouver. When Sons opened, there were 70 craft distilleries in Washington State and 19 in B.C. (there are now 34 B.C. distilleries listed in The Alchemist, with another 10 close to releasing spirits, and more new licences issued.) Last summer, Lester notes, five of the Washington operations went under. Though booming, the B.C. market, he says, is still finding its feet.
“We see a lot of people looking to get into craft distilling, and we try and help as much as we can. But too often we see people who want to make a product without any clear idea of what they want it to taste like.
“They really are shooting in the dark.”
COLOUR SCHEME: The “nuclear orange” of Sons’ Chili Vodka was a happy accident discovered when they finally had time to leave the chilies steeping longer, and the skins bled pigment into the spirit.
THE LOWEST POINT: Lester spent two weeks in hospital and is still recovering from massive burns suffered when a stripping still boiled over in August 2015. He slipped trying to escape, and molten alcohol poured down his back and arm.
—by Fiona Morrow